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See How They Run

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See How They Run

When Did Childhood Turn Into a Rat Race?

by William Doherty

Once every decade or so, we therapists awaken from our cultural slumber to see a problem that previously had no name in our clinical lexicon. In previous decades, we came to see sexism and racism as problems deeply rooted in the larger culture and spreading tentacles into family and personal life in ways we could no longer ignore in our work. I have a nomination for the problem of this decade: for many kids, childhood is becoming a rat race of hyperscheduling, overbusyness, and loss of family time. The problem is all around us, but we haven't noticed how many of our children, especially middle-class kids, need daily planners to manage their schedules of soccer, hockey, piano, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, baseball, football, karate, gymnastics, dance, violin, band, craft clubs, foreign-language classes, academic-enrichment courses, and religious activities. Parents have become recreation directors on the family cruise ship.

Stephanie, age 16, was living in the belly of this beast. The presenting problems in therapy were marital conflict and family tensions related to starting a new stepfamily. Stephanie was having trouble tolerating the supervision of her new stepmother, and was becoming alternately withdrawn and angry. I asked her about something I'd never have inquired about in the past: her schedule. When she recounted her typical day, the hair on my neck stood up. Out of bed at 5 a.m. to get across town to high school, home at 3:30, off to swimming practice from 4 to 7 p.m., then grab a quick dinner from whatever was in the refrigerator, and homework till midnight. Nineteen-hour days during the week. Saturdays were taken up with swimming meets. And yes, religious-education classes on Sundays, plus church youth-group events throughout the year. Stephanie admitted to being tired all the time, and acknowledged that she'd found it easier to accept her stepmother last summer when she wasn't so tired.

It isn't just teenagers like Stephanie who now live in the fast lane. A pediatrician told me that some of his young patients wanted him to convince their parents to let them quit a sport so that they could be home more often. Teachers describe a generation of young students weary from schedules that many adults couldn't handle. A second-grade teacher from a community near Albany, New York, used strong language: "This is an abused generation," she said at a public meeting. She went on to explain that, after 30 years of teaching the same age group, she's never seen children so tired and burdened from being up too early in the morning, going to bed too late at night, and being crunched in between by extremely competitive activities.

This fast-tracking of childhood is fairly new on the cultural landscape, having come upon us in the last two decades or so. A national time-diary survey conducted by the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center in 1981 and 1997 has documented this change in children's schedules and family activities. During those 16 years, children lost 12 hours per week in free time, including a 25 percent drop in playtime and a 50 percent drop in unstructured outdoor activities. During the same period, time in structured sports doubled and "passive, spectator leisure" (watching siblings and others play and perform) increased sixfold--from half an hour per week to more than three hours. Time spent on homework increased by 50 percent.


Partly as a consequence of children's new schedules, families spend less time interacting. According to the same survey, household conversations between parents and children--time for just talking and not doing anything else--nearly dropped off the radar screen of family life. Another national survey plotted a one-third decrease in the number of families even claiming to have family dinners regularly.

Kids themselves are recognizing the problem. A recent national poll of 746 children ages 9 to 14 conducted by the Center for the New American Dream found that fewer than a third of children say they have a lot of time with their parents. When asked about the barriers, they pointed to parents' work schedules and their own activity schedules. A national YMCA poll of teenagers taken in 2000 found that more than 20 percent of American teens rated "not having enough time with parents" as their top concern. For a new book, therapist Ron Taffel, one of our best observers of youth culture, interviewed 150 children attending preschool through sixth grade, and found that the one wish expressed by nearly every child was that their parents spend more time with them. Some of this "time famine" stems from a problem familiar to therapists--parents' having to work more hours and more jobs. But another, unnamed and insidious, factor is also at work: the overscheduling of kids.

In other words, we now know that children have a lot less free time, connect with their families less often, and live busier and more structured lives. This change in American family life is deep and broad, most strongly affecting the middle class, but cutting a wide swath across income and ethnic groups. (The very poor don't have the resources to overschedule their kids, but they face their own challenges in finding time to connect as a family.) And it has come upon us with amazing speed.

Is this change unwelcome? Academic researchers are just beginning to study the effects of overbusy family life on child development. Studies have shown the importance of regular family dinners, one of the chief casualties of hyperscheduling. The national Adolescent Health Study of American teenagers found a strong link between regular family meals and a wide range of positive outcomes: academic success, psychological adjustment, and lower rates of alcohol use, drug use, early sexual behavior, and suicide. On the flip side, not having regular family meals was associated with higher risks in all those areas. The University of Michigan study of children's time found that more meal time at home was the single strongest predictor of better achievement scores and fewer behavioral problems. Mealtime was far more powerful than time spent in school, studying, going to church, playing sports, or doing art activities. Results held across all types of families and all income levels.


Overscheduled Lives

When I first began to notice the impact of kids' schedules in my clinical practice, it came through mundane problems with scheduling appointments. When a couple I was seeing wanted to bring in their children for family therapy, I was able to offer them a precious 5 p.m. slot, having persuaded another client to give up that hour. I was perplexed when they replied that their son had one of his three hockey practices per week at that time. It would be unthinkable for him to miss practice every other week for family therapy. But they'd be willing to take him out of school without hesitation if we could schedule something earlier in the afternoon. I was flummoxed, and switched the family to an earlier slot. I then began to notice in my supervisees' clinical practices how hard it was becoming to schedule whole-family sessions, including the siblings, not because of parents' work schedules, but because of kids' activity schedules. It seemed intolerable to parents and kids alike that a sibling should miss an event or practice to attend a family therapy session. The therapists capitulated to the new cultural norm. More than managed care or the medical model, kids' soccer may be the dagger in the heart of conjoint family therapy.

When I began to talk with other therapists about the problem of overscheduled kids and underconnected families, I found an interesting divide. Therapists currently raising children often reacted defensively; those whose kids were grown up, or who didn't have children, agreed wholeheartedly and seemed relieved to be talking about the problem. One colleague, bragging about her athletic daughter, told me with pride how she was able to work her afternoon schedule to do a 30-minute dash from the office to take her daughter from gymnastics to soccer, return to see her next client, and then pick up her daughter after soccer to dash home and throw together a quick meal. When I muttered, "What a schedule," she looked at me incredulously, pointing out the opportunities her daughter had that she herself had lacked, and noting that I'd raised my children in an earlier generation. (My kids, it seems, grew up in the ancient world of the 1970s and early 1980s, before the deluge.) This was the busy new world of family life, she observed, as inevitable as long winters in Minnesota.

Older therapists I talk to bemoan what they see in culture and their clinical practice. They're befuddled when their own grandbabies are enrolled in three classes per week and frustrated when they can't get on their older grandkids' schedules. They see their adult children's families as being too focused on outside activities, and too caught up in their children's extracurricular successes, but they lack a language to talk about it without seeming like old fogies. Therapists I admire for their cultural wisdom, such as Peter Fraenkel and Mary Pipher, have begun to speak out about the corrosive influence of frantic schedules and the resulting time famine on family life. In her new book for young therapists, Mary Pipher observes that when she started out as a therapist in the 1970s, she was treating clients' sexual problems; now she's treating their schedules.

Outside the world of therapists, when I speak publicly about the problem of overscheduled kids and underconnected families, the stories and sense of outrage come fast. A Houston mother told me about a friend who recounted with pride a scheduling breakthrough with 6- and 8-year-old sons, Timmy and Matt. Their afterschool and evening schedules were already crowded with sports and music lessons, but Timmy needed tutoring for reading, and Matt had trouble finding time for his homework in the evening. The solution was creative: the mother found a tutor who'd meet with Timmy at 6:30 a.m. while Matt did his homework outside in the waiting car. This allowed for an efficient use of the early-morning hours and no interference with afterschool and evening activities. The mother was proud of this scheduling coup.


What's going on here? Well-intentioned parents are acting like professional agents for their children. Many tell me they don't enjoy this scene that much, but are afraid that their kids will be left behind when the achievement train leaves the station. The result is that for the first time in human history, family life revolves around children's optional activities rather than these activities revolving around the family.

Many parents mourn the older priorities about family time, but feel helpless to get off the merry-go-round. I hear parents complain about running all the time, having one-handed dinners in the car between practices, and losing summer vacations to sports tournaments and specialized camps. Although children get used to whatever family life they're raised in, some are beginning to ask to slow down. A 6-year-old got her first daily planner, and then asked for time to just play. A 9-year-old boy, in his top-10 list of birthday presents, placed "more time at home" as number three. A 12-year-old sheepishly asked her parents if it would be okay not to try out for the traveling soccer team because she's tired and misses playing with the kids in the neighborhood.

Searching for Causes

How did we get here as a culture? There are many explanations, many factors contributing to the problem. I've asked thousands of parents at community events for their explanations of this social change. Here's what some of them say. One straightforward factor is that there are simply more opportunities for children, especially for girls. A mother in Northfield, Minnesota, said that she counted 14 community activities for 3-year-olds. In addition, these activities, particularly sports, are far more intense. Sports used to be seasonal; now many are year-round. Traveling teams were unheard of 25 years ago, outside of varsity sports. As one veteran coach told me, we've lost the distinction between competitive sports and recreational sports. And this has spilled over to activities such as dance programs and gymnastics, which travel to compete. Practices for all kinds of activities now occur three or more times per week, with weekend competitions. And this even for 7-year-olds, who are actually becoming old-timers now that competition has moved to the preschool years! We now have organized soccer for 2-year-olds in St. Paul, Minnesota. I hesitate to ask about diaper-changing breaks!

Another factor is more working parents. Parents need to fill children's time after school with structured activities, although it appears that stay-at-home parents overschedule their kids just as frequently, partly because there's no one for their children to play with after school. Many parents tell me that they've heard that busy kids stay out of trouble, and they'd rather their child be in structured activities than watching TV or playing video games all day. A good point, I reply, but does this require the schedule of a CEO?


Some parents say that they schedule their kids to the hilt because they don't want them to be playing outside in an unsafe neighborhood. While some parents are indeed raising their children in unsafe neighborhoods, for others, the danger is more perceived than real. There are about 130 stranger-abductions in the whole country each year, a figure no higher than 40 years ago, before CNN and Amber Alerts. And the majority of victims are teenagers, not young children. I know parents who won't let their children play in their fenced backyard in safe neighborhoods without an adult present.

A big fear I hear from parents is that their children will miss out on opportunities or fall behind their peers. This fuels early, intense involvement in activities, with parents worrying that delaying the start of a sport or musical instrument may doom their child to not being able play competitively at all in the future (a concern that's often well founded). Contemporary parents feel terrific pressure, not only to have their children succeed, but to have them show promise at young ages. This is a generation of children and parents who are preoccupied with visible signs of success, from having to know the alphabet and colors before going to school, to worrying about a college r´esum´e in sixth grade, to having to compete at high levels in athletics. Three- year-olds leave preschool at 4 p.m. to be driven to their math class because not enough preschools teach about the radius and circumference of the circle. When I was growing up, you needed just one skill before first grade: how to use the potty.

Most of these influences are mediated through parental peer pressure. Parents watch other parents and listen to what other parents say. Look at how holiday letters glowingly describe the plethora of activities the children are involved in--the more activities and successes, the better parent you are. How many say that the family is in more balance this year, spending more time together? And look at the parental pressure on the sidelines at sports events. One father described how another father quietly bragged that his son made the traveling soccer team and was also planning to go out for baseball. Then came the question, "Is your son going to be on the traveling team?" Fortunately, the first father could answer "yes" to traveling soccer, but had to answer "no" to the follow-up question about whether the boy was going out for baseball. The other father smiled and asked, "Isn't he good at baseball?" Later, when the son decided to quit traveling soccer in favor of a less intense league, his father and mother--both psychologists, by the way--worried that he might lack the competitive edge to be successful in life.

The big picture behind this phenomenon is that the adult world of hypercompetition and marketplace values has invaded the family. Parents love their children as much as previous generations did, but we're raising our children in a culture that defines a good parent as an opportunity provider in a competitive world. This is parenting as product development, with insecure parents never knowing when they've done enough. Keeping our children busy at least means they're in the game and we're doing our job. I believe that a small percentage of parents have fully bought this cultural model and drive the intense competition of childhood activities, and that most other parents are just trying to keep pace, worrying that if their children fall behind, they'll lose self-esteem and the ability to compete.


A parent told me recently that in her upper-middle-class community, people no longer brag about the size of their house or the model of their car--they brag about how busy their family is. When one parent, in mock complaint, says, "We're so busy right now," another parent tops it with a more extreme story. And in a market-oriented, money-driven culture, we can point more readily to things we pay for--equipment, registration fees, traveling expenses, coaches' salaries--than for low-key family activities like hanging out together on a Sunday afternoon or playing a board game on a Friday night. It's the same with children's playtime: we don't easily assign ourselves "parent points" for providing our children with time to daydream and make up games to play with the neighbor kids. Parenting has become a competitive sport, with the trophies going to the busiest.

This is what makes time-starved childhood a taboo subject to talk about, even in therapy. If giving our kids more and better opportunities is a good thing, how do we question it without sounding judgmental or appearing to be out of step with the modern world? How exactly did that guy broach the embarrassing observation about the emperor's new clothes?

In the case of Stephanie, the 16-year-old with a CEO's schedule, only the stepmother thought her activities were excessive. Her father was proud of her athletic ability and her stamina, seeing these as important for her success in college and later life. When I asked Stephanie if she'd considered cutting back on her swimming, she replied that she didn't want to quit at this point because injuries had kept her from improving on her times since age 13, and she wanted to see if she could top those times. She had too much invested, she was saying, to quit now. The stepmother wisely noted that Stephanie was weary and needed down time, but what do you expect from a stepmother who doesn't have the same passionate investment in the girl's future success? Stephanie stayed in swimming, the parents got into marital therapy, and Stephanie and the family coped as well as they could with their schedules.

Kathy, a California mother, made a different decision by downsizing her son's schedule, and paid a price in the community. After Little League baseball for 11-year-old Josh reached a fever pitch of scheduling one year, she and her husband said "Enough." Family dinners were vanishing. Evening and weekends were spent on the road and at ball fields. With two working parents, another son's activities to schedule, and a community with overcrowded highways, baseball was putting everyone on "tilt." The parents decided to reclaim family time by not enrolling their son when the new season started. They didn't know that they there were violating a community standard for good parenting, as evidenced by the shock and dismay of other parents that such a good player had been summarily removed from the Little League team. When Kathy told another mother at the local supermarket about the family's decision to pull their son off the team, the stunned neighbor replied, "Can you do that?"


Second-wave feminists faced a similar challenge in getting the larger culture to see a problem in the domestication of women's lives in the post-World War II era. The cultural norm declared women to be privileged if they stayed out of the work force. In writing The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan's goal was to show women that their privilege was actually their prison. Today we have the soccer mom, who's likely to be employed, and the hockey dad, who shows his love for his children by coaching their teams. We have parents who brag about their children's exploits in half-a-dozen activities, but who rarely have a family meal or a leisurely Sunday afternoon at home. They've come to define commitment to the team as more important than commitment to the family, or even to a balanced childhood.

Do you think I'm exaggerating? A family therapist told me that when he confronted his daughter's coach about a letter of complaint to his 12-year-old daughter about the daughter's "lack of commitment" because she attended her Confirmation preparation weekend instead of a soccer tournament, the coach was unapologetic. When the father said that soccer was important, but church was too, and that they wanted their daughter to have a balanced life, the coach replied, "I don't believe in balance." The girl was devastated and the parents angry. And then there's the rest of the story: missing her friends on the team and the sport, the girl asked her parents if she could return to the same team and the same coach. And they let her. Parents who'll confront a teacher for the slightest insensitivity to their child's needs become complete wimps in the face of a coach and the "needs" of their children to be on the team.

Naming the Problem

In my own practice and in my community work, I'm now naming the problem that had no name. I'm calling it "overscheduled kids and underconnected families." Then when I listen, the stories come out. A stressed 7-year-old whispers to a neighbor parent that she wishes her mother would let her quit Scouts. A mother remarks ruefully that her family lives so much in the minivan that she should decorate it! A coach, trying to bring balance to his community, is dismayed when he comes upon a schedule for 11-year-old boys who practice at 10 p.m. on Thursday nights, at a facility 45 minutes from home. Parents say they hate these schedules, but don't know how to change them without depriving their children of opportunities. Everyone's afraid to be the first to cut back. A sane lifestyle looks strange in an insane world.

Like sexism and racism, this is a cultural problem that we now know is also a clinical problem. It shows itself clinically in overwrought kids and families, and in couples who have no time whatsoever for their marriage. (If the family gets the dregs left over after individuals are scheduled, the couple gets the dregs of the dregs.) We've got to regard this as a cultural problem with an upstream source, rather than just a clinical problem ripe for our theories about why each family's own pathology got them into trouble.


As clinicians, we influence clients and the wider culture by what we ask about in the therapy room--and by what we choose not to ask about. We have to start inquiring about kids' schedules, and not just our usual suspect--parent work schedules. Does Johnny have any time to hang out and be a kid? Could his ADD be exacerbated by scheduled family hyperactivity? Does Linda ever have the chance to eat a leisurely meal with her parents and siblings? When a father brags about his son's football prowess in an intense program, the therapist, instead of politely saying "good for you," can ask the boy, "Do you like what you're doing?" It took a journalist to inspire me to ask this question. When she asked this question to a star athlete in front of his doting father, the boy replied, "No, I don't enjoy it anymore." Jaws dropped around the room. I'd never thought to be so bold in therapy, but I am now.

When spouses say they feel like ships passing in the night, do they really mean they're chauffeuring their children on diverging highways? Instead of smiling benignly and saying, "Yes, kids can sure take a lot of work," we can ask whether they've chosen this lifestyle or feel compelled to follow it. Do they feel like booking agents for their children? Who created these crazy rules for parents? I tell parents that my own parents never attended my games (the same was true for my friends), and that I'd have been mortified if they'd showed up. ("Doherty's mother is here!") I speculate out loud about when the law got passed--sometime in the 1980s perhaps--mandating that parents attend every game and half of their children's practices. And the same law said to forget about carpooling with other parents so that some parents could stay home and cook a family meal or have one-on-one time with another child.

It's like with sex, money, and race--if we don't ask, our clients usually don't tell. Through our curiosity, we signal what's appropriate to talk about in therapy. The key is to raise these questions first from a cultural perspective, not a clinical perspective. In family therapy, we can comment that today's families seem to be under a lot more scheduling pressure than in the past. We can ask whether little Jessica's friends all seem to be as busy as she is. We can empathize with how hard it is to have time to eat and play together as a family with these intense activity schedules. We can say that we see lots of families struggling with the same level of stress and fatigue, and that we think something's out of whack in today's world. At each point, of course, it's important to pace these comments and questions with how the parents and children are responding. My experience has been that parents often respond with a chorus of "Yes, it's a crazy world now." Kids, who don't know a different way of living, are often open and curious as long as you don't sound like you're making decrees about their schedules. The key is to put the problem on the table in a nonjudgmental way and make it legitimate to talk about. Sometimes, families will continue for a while with a stressful schedule but decide to cut back during the next summer or school year. Sometimes, I suggest taking a sabbatical for a semester or summer from all optional outside activities, to rest, recoup, and learn what to do as a family, and then decide about their subsequent schedule.

In adult and couples therapy, the same approach can be useful: begin by asking questions about schedules, and stop regarding frenetic lives as normal and inevitable. Starting with the cultural conversation can sidestep personal guilt for the moment and open the path to exploration and problem-solving. Instead of suggesting that a couple's chauffeuring pace with children is how they avoid unresolved issues with each other (a ready-made clinical interpretation), we can note that a great many couples today struggle with how to have time for a marriage in a world divided between employment and parental traffic-control. When I refer to parents today as recreation directors on the family cruise ship, nearly all parents light up with recognition. This can lead to a conversation about social pressures to sacrifice everything, including one's marriage, in order to provide opportunities for children in a competitive world. I tell stories of family Thanksgiving dinners yielding to extra practices. We laugh and shake our heads together about the craziness of it all.


By first externalizing the problem in this way, we can join with clients as members of an out-of-control culture that's unfriendly to marriage and other adult unions, rather than meeting resistance by tangling with couples over whether they're running from their relationship by overserving their children. Of course, there are couples who'll do anything to avoid spending time alone, but when the average child-rearing couple in the land is experiencing a problem, there's more going on than clinical pathology. Good therapy must have a good dose of cultural criticism.

Needless to say, we have our own homework to do as therapists before we can be change agents with our clients and within the larger culture. Solidly middle class by dint of our education (if not always our income!), we're swimming in the same river as our clients, teaching our kids multiple swimming strokes, searching for the best instructors, and hoping for that college scholarship at the end of the pool. But if we're prepared to do our own soul-searching, we can stop conspiring with our clients and our culture, and start sounding the alarm in our offices.

If the source of the problem is in the culture, however, it's not enough to talk about it in our offices. We're like physicians treating kids with symptoms of lead poisoning from the paint in their house. We can't be satisfied with just advising individual parents to stop their kids from eating the paint chips; we have to address the environment--the landlords, the paint companies, and the government regulators. But most of us weren't trained to work the streets, and it can feel overwhelming. Keep in mind that by dint of our professional status, we have access to the public arena. We can speak to parents at the local PTA or the adult forum at a local religious congregation. (Believe me, these groups are always looking for speakers.) We can cultivate relationships with journalists and offer to do interviews for local newspapers and radio stations. When we gain this access, the key is to step outside our comfort zone of psychological and family-systems talk to name the cultural pollutants in our communities. If we touch a chord in parents' experience, they'll resonate and feel more empowered to speak up for their children and families. Cultural change occurs one conversation after another, in ripples that we can help start and keep spreading.

There are ways to be even more public, such as participating in activities of Take Back Your Time Day, a national event on October 24, 2003, and partnering with local groups of parents for collective action. The stakes are high. We're facing a new threat to childhood and family life, one disguised in the costumes of fun, achievement, healthy competition, and keeping busy. It's a false cultural god, this colonization of childhood by market forces. If we name it, we can begin to talk about it. If we can talk about it in therapy and in our communities, we can be part of the change that must come.

William Doherty, Ph.D., is professor and director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Minnesota. Address: Family Social Science, University of Minnesota, 290 McNeal Hall, St. Paul, MN 55108. E-mails to the author may be sent to Letters to the Editor about this article may be sent to

Last modified on Friday, 23 July 2010 11:52

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